I am going to share a story about a time I was a thorn in a national columnist’s side and ended up being the focus of a column written by the Toronto Star’s public editor.
Last year, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote a column about the then-ongoing Jian Ghomeshi case. In her column, she discussed Lucy DeCoutere’s romantic relations with the former radio host (“After the chokehold, defense sees a crush,” Feb. 5, 2016). DiManno refers to a “love letter” DeCoutere had allegedly written to Ghomeshi in 2003, about three days after the alleged assault. In the column, DiManno accidentally reported the letter had been written in 2013, so I sent DiManno a message to let her know of the error.
She got back to me to let me know the “typo” had been fixed. When I went back to look at the column online, it was indeed fixed, but there was no correction affixed to the piece indicating an earlier version had included the wrong date.
I felt, and still feel, this was an important thing to do because the Ghomeshi trial was a hyper-public event. Most everybody was paying attention to it. It was also a trial that galvanized people to one side or the other. Reading a report in the Toronto Star that DeCoutere had sent Ghomeshi a love letter in 2013 – a full decade after the events in question – raised my eyebrow and led me to fact check and find the error. But not every reader would do this. There are people who would get an entirely wrong impression from reading this typo and it worried me that the Star wouldn’t be transparent about it, given the intense public interest in the case.
When it comes to facts, it’s always important to get it right, but when dealing with court cases it’s especially so because the facts are evidence that could either indict or vindicate somebody of a crime.
So I asked DiManno, why no correction?
She told me to get a life.
Because I am stubborn, I decided I would write to the Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, about my concerns.
A public editor’s role is to make sure his or her institution’s newsroom abides by its own ethical standards. Sometimes, when something the newspaper prints receives a lot of feedback or if the issue is of public interest, the public editor will write a column.
As part of her response to me, English wrote a column about the issue I raised.
“Sometimes a typo published in the Toronto Star is just that, a regrettable slip of the finger that makes little difference to readers’ understanding of the news at hand,” she wrote (“When it’s more than a typo,” Feb. 12, 2016).
“There are times, however, when a ‘typo’ has significant impact on what readers know and understand. That is what I call a mistake. That is when a correction is required.”
English went on to state the Toronto Star has a policy to not “scrub” errors in stories posted to the Internet for this very reason. Regarding the error in DiManno’s column, she wrote it had circulated the Internet for about an hour before the clarification about the date was made. She said she was not made aware of the change, as per Star policy.
“Indeed, in this high-profile criminal trial, as in all matters of public justice, there is no room for misunderstanding or confusion,” wrote English.
I share this story to demonstrate what public editors are for. They are present in newsrooms to make sure the organizations they represent hold themselves to their own ethical standards. They will listen, and respond to, situations where it appears this isn’t happening. In today’s era of fake news, public editors are a great resource for learning more about debates within the world of journalism ethics or even just holding a publication to account.
Northern News Services doesn’t have anybody appointed in a specific “public editor” role. But Yellowknifer assignment editor Randi Beers — me! — managing editor Mike Bryant or publisher Bruce Valpy can answer any questions about Northern News Services coverage.
Any reputable news outlet will have a either a public editor or editorial board with names and contact information so readers can actively engage with the publication. Newspaper editors don’t want to be silo’ed from their readers — we have an obligation to build relationships with the public so as to build trust.